New Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, photo The Scottish Parliament/CC

New Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, photo The Scottish Parliament/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Philip Stott, Socialist Party Scotland

The left have won the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party for the first time with Richard Leonard’s victory over the Blairite candidate Anas Sarwar. Socialist Party Scotland welcomes this result, which can potentially open up the possibility of building a real left and anti-austerity Labour Party in Scotland.

However, this will only be possible if the Labour Party under his leadership pursues a consistent anti-austerity policy, ends the acceptance of Labour politicians carrying out cuts, and recognises its mistakes on the national question and Scottish independence.

In addition, a wholesale transformation is needed to the democratic structures of the party to allow for the reselection of councillors, MPs and MSPs who refuse to fight for left and socialist policies in words and deeds.

Leonard, a Corbyn supporter standing on a left platform, won a 57% share and 12,469 votes to Sarwar’s 9,516 (43%). Overwhelming backing from the trade unions for Richard Leonard was reflected in the 77% vote he polled among the affiliated supporters section of the ballot.

However, the outcome was significantly closer in the Labour Party members section. Here only 51.8% supported Leonard and 48.2% for Sarwar.

Blow to right

As the seventh Scottish Labour leader in the last ten years, Richard Leonard’s victory will be a boost to Corbyn at a UK level and a blow to the right. He now has a seat on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party vacated by Blarite Kezia “I’m a celebrity – get me out of here” Dugdale, whose resignation as Scottish leader in July triggered the contest.

Sarwar was the candidate of the anti-Corbyn faction of the Scottish Labour Party and represented, literally, the “millionaire tendency”. He also had the backing of many more councillors, MSPs and elected politicians than Leonard.

The fact that a millionaire, whose family firm that he was a shareholder in does not pay the living wage or recognise trade unions and who sends his children to private school, won almost half the votes among Scottish Labour members underlines the lack of a Corbyn surge in Scotland.

Scottish Labour membership only makes up 25,000 of the nearly 600,000 members across the UK. This limited appeal to leftward-moving young people and workers is a reflection of Scottish Labour’s right-wing leadership over decades, and their outright opposition to Scottish independence.

Leonard, a member of the Scottish parliament and a former full-time officer for the GMB union, fought his campaign on a number of left polices, including rent control and a programme of affordable house building for social rent, public ownership of the railways, buses and transport, an end to benefit caps and the scrapping of the rolling out of Universal Credit.

A key issue in the election was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Although Corbyn mistakenly took a neutral position on who should be the Scottish leader, Richard Leonard was widely seen as representing the Corbyn movement. Sarwar’s opposition to Corbyn and his previous backing for the coup in 2016 counted heavily against him.

Sarwar’s supporters attacked the Unite union, which played a leading role in Leonard’s campaign. Blairite Scottish MP Ian Murray claimed: “The way in which Unite have signed up affiliate members to vote in the leadership election is against the rules of the Scottish Labour Party. It is at best clumsy and, at worst, being rigged.”

Not content with attacking the trade unions, Sarwar and co even took aim at Socialist Party Scotland for our backing for Leonard. The Scotsman newspaper reported that: “The Socialist Party Scotland, which refers to itself as ‘formerly Militant’, said unity with ‘Blairites’ like Anas Sarwar is not possible and also supports a second independence referendum.

“A source in the Anas Sarwar campaign said: ‘Militant tore the Labour Party apart and at its peak we were never further away from power. It has no interest in uniting the Labour Party so that we can be in government in both Edinburgh and Westminster.'”

Of course, the exact opposite of these Blairite imaginings is true. At its height in Liverpool in the 1980s, Militant’s socialist policies meant Labour was never more electable – winning election after election – as a result of the mass campaign to oppose Thatcher’s cuts and win the money to build homes, nurseries and sport centres for the city. It was the Blairite, pro-capitalist takeover of Labour that, especially in Scotland, led to its electoral collapse following the disastrous ‘Better Together’ campaign in opposition to Scottish independence.

Sarwar also used the Blairite playbook on Brexit and the EU to make a key plank of his campaign continued membership of the neoliberal single market.

A key issue in the election was Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour, photo RevolutionBahrain/CC

A key issue in the election was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, photo RevolutionBahrain/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Two parties in one

Despite Richard Leonard’s overwhelming support among trade unionists and a small majority of Labour members, the reality is that Labour is still two parties in one. The right wing has major influence in the party and is, at council level especially, voting through cuts at an unprecedented rate.

It was therefore a mistake for Richard Leonard to say following his victory: “There is now a consensus established on a radical policy agenda which will form the basis for our unity in going forward in which Anas will have a vital role to play.”

There simply cannot be a “consensus” with the pro-capitalist forces of the Labour right on Richard Leonard’s call for “democracy and socialism”. The idea of peaceful coexistence between left and right is a utopia.

The right wingers in the Labour Party are ruthless. They will do everything in their power to defeat the left and remove Corbyn and, for that matter, Leonard over time. In this they have the full backing of the capitalist establishment.

A broad socialist Labour Party is one thing. Socialist Party Scotland is in favour of trade unions and socialists from all backgrounds being in one party, with the right to organise into trends and platforms to assist democratic debate and discussion. But the avowedly pro-capitalist and pro-war right is another question altogether.

They should be removed through methods like democratic reselection of MPs, MSPs and councillors, in order to create a genuine anti-austerity and left-wing Labour Party. Unfortunately, this is something Richard Leonard currently seems opposed to.


A major test for the left leader of Scottish Labour will come very quickly as councils are now beginning to draw up new budgets for February and March next year. Will Richard Leonard do what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have so far not done and call on Labour councillors to oppose all cuts and draw up plans for no-cuts budgets?

In 12 of Scotland’s 32 councils Labour is in the ruling administration. However, the indications are all these councils will be pursuing a cuts agenda over the next few weeks. Nothing can damage the credibility of a left leadership more than if they are seen to preside over yet further cuts and endless austerity.

A fighting left and socialist alternative would be to set no-cuts budgets by using the powers of the councils over borrowing, reserves and other measures. This is a policy currently supported by Unison, Unite and the GMB, unions that supported Richard Leonard’s campaign.

The potential for Labour under a new left leader to recover from the shattering impact of the 2015 electoral wipeout was clearly seen in the June 2017 general election. The Scottish National Party (SNP) lost 21 of their MPs and half a million votes. Labour made a modest recovery but only added six MPs to the solitary one they held on to after the 2015 rout.


A huge barrier to a recovery for Scottish Labour is its mistakes on the national question. Mistakes that unfortunately seem likely to continue under Richard Leonard’s leadership.

Leonard said at the launch of his leadership campaign that: “For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear – there will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership… And no second independence referendum”.

This approach, if it continues, will be an albatross around the neck of Scottish Labour. It will hamper its ability to reconnect with vast swathes of the working class in cities like Dundee, Glasgow and across the west of Scotland. Such an inflexible position carries the real danger of taking Scottish Labour down the road of the ‘social democratic’ Psoe in Spain, which has disgraced itself by uniting with the Spanish ruling class to deny Catalonia the right to self-determination.

Even under a left leadership, unless there is a change, Labour will struggle to recover. As it is, Scottish Labour’s membership has not seen the surge witnessed in other parts of the UK. An anti-austerity policy – in truth only a partial anti-austerity policy because of Labour’s acceptance of councillors who vote through cuts – will not be enough on its own to recover ground lost to the SNP.

While the intensity of the mood around a second referendum has dipped – a majority in polls don’t support an indyref 2 in the short term – backing for independence at around 45% is still at historically high levels. A new upsurge in the national question at a certain stage is very likely and Labour must, under Leonard’s leadership, urgently re-examine its position.

As a minimum, a conference of the labour movement should be convened to work out a position that doesn’t just see the national question as false binary choice of ‘socialism or nationalism’. It is possible to fight for the unity of the working class across Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland while defending the right of Scotland to self-determination.

Scottish Labour certainly needs to make clear that it will never oppose the democratic rights of the people of Scotland to a second referendum if and when the majority wish to have one.

Labour’s modest recovery at the June general election – although it only added 9,860 votes to its 707,147 tally in 2015 – and the widespread support and sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn, has not resulted in a major advance in the polls. A fighting socialist policy to oppose all cuts and a class approach towards Scottish independence is essential. The new left leadership in Scotland under Richard Leonard must address these issues urgently.